Nationals clearly the better team
To be honest, I have it easy. Mr. Knisley, on the other side of this debate, had to work hard, conjuring up arguments and half-truths and black magic. But explaining why the Nationals will win the NL East is like Clayton Kershaw pitching against the Rockies: 1-2-3.
1. They're already in first place. In fact, FanGraphs gives the Nationals a 73 percent chance of winning the division and the Braves a 23 percent chance. That may seem like an extreme difference considering the Nationals lead the Braves (and Marlins) by just 1½ games, but the factors in those odds include performance to date and projected performance.
The Nationals' lead is slim but when you look at some of the underlying results, you'll see they've significantly outplayed the Braves. They've outscored their opponents by 39 runs while the Braves have been outscored by 13 runs. So there's that.
But the key reason the Nationals are projected to win 89 games and the Braves 84 is the Nationals have a better talent base. There is no Aaron Harang mirage helping to anchor the pitching staff. The Braves have clear holes in the lineup -- B.J. Upton, Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons all have sub-.300 on-base percentages. The only comparable hole the Nationals have is Danny Espinosa.
2. The Nationals have held on to first place despite a slew of injuries. Bryce Harper has missed 48 games, Ryan Zimmerman has missed 45, Wilson Ramos has played just 24 games. Zimmerman is back and Ramos had returned from his Opening Day broken hand, but then suffered a strained hamstring last week. Harper could return July 1 from his thumb injury.
It all adds up to a second-half surge. Once Harper is back, manager Matt Williams will have a lot of lineup flexibility and the ability to rest some of his older players on a regular basis. Zimmerman is playing left field and will likely remain there for the most part, but he can fill in at first base or third base. Anthony Rendon can slide back to second. Harper probably will play all three outfield positions. Most important, with Zimmerman, Ramos and Harper, the Nats will have the meat of their lineup together for the first time since Opening Day.
While the Nationals should then be expected to improve their run scoring, it's hard to project the Braves doing the same. For the most part, their players have performed as expected. B.J. Upton has been better than last year, but still bad. Johnson has predictably regressed. Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton have been fine. Evan Gattis has far exceeded expectations. Jason Heyward is the one guy you may see improvement from, but he hasn't been terrible.
3. Pitching, pitching, pitching. The Nationals have the second-best ERA in the majors at 3.09, behind only Oakland. Since the first two weeks of the season it's 2.79 -- nearly a run better than Atlanta's 3.66 mark. And maybe you haven't noticed but Stephen Strasburg has matched the hype of late. Over his past 10 starts, he's 5-3 but with a 2.15 ERA and a 71-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Jordan Zimmermann had a couple of rough outings early on, but in his past three starts he has allowed one run and 10 hits in 25 innings, looking like the guy who was so dominant for long stretches of 2013. Doug Fister has a 2.38 ERA over his past seven starts. Gio Gonzalez returned from the DL on Wednesday and looked shaky, but that's not a bad addition if he's now your No. 4 starter.
How can the Braves match all that? Sure, they have Craig Kimbrel in the ninth inning, but guess which team has the best bullpen ERA in the majors? Yep. The Nationals.
I hope we have a race in the NL East -- with the Marlins involved as well -- but I think by early September the Nationals will be sitting pretty comfortably.
Braves will ultimately prevail
This maybe isn't the most opportune moment in a long season to be making a case for the Braves as your 2014 National League East Division champs. (Mr. Schoenfield over on the other side of this Hot Button page was sneaky-quick to the buzzer when the assignment came with this question: "Who wants the Nationals?") Justify the Braves? Just swept at home by the Phillies (the Phillies!)? A 19-28 record since April 27? Proprietors of a free-swinging, whiff-riddled offense that way too often ignores the "all" option in its all-or-nothing plate approach ?
Yeah. This'll be easy.
But you know what? I can do this. Just let me find those rose-colored spectacles I left lying around here somewhere. Oh, here they are. That's better. I can see um, clearly now.
So let's start where everything starts: starters. Sure, the Nats throw sexy names like Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez out there, but they don't lead the majors in quality starts. Atlanta does. They aren't third in the National League in starters' ERA. Atlanta is (ahead of Washington). Yep. The unsexy Gavin Floyd's "smoke." The unsexy Aaron Harang's mirrors. They're doin' it better. The Braves might not leave you weak in the knees with their intimidating stuff -- they aren't Strasburg-ish, although Julio Teheran is getting there -- but they do what it takes to keep the team's keel even. They keep the Braves in games.
And they'll keep 'em in the pennant race.
Well, not all of that rotation will keep 'em in the pennant race. Some of it likely won't be toeing the slab for Atlanta much longer, which, in an odd turn, is another reason to like the Braves' chances. They have starting-pitching chips with which to bargain their way into an upgraded offense and/or a bolstered bullpen between now and the trading deadline. They can sell Floyd (2.98 ERA) high. Or they can sell Harang (3.83) high. They're already regrooming Alex Wood for the rotation by stretching him out as a starter again in Triple-A. Wood put together a 3.00 ERA in seven starts for the big league club in April and early May before the return of Mike Minor moved him to the bullpen. He'll replace, and likely improve upon, whichever unsexy starter Atlanta deals.
Now, about that incredible shrinking offense
Look, it's a long season. OK, it's a long season and a half, which is how long Atlanta's lineup has been dragging around the tandem of Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. But the Uggla fix is already in, thanks to Tommy La Stella's .343 start (.410 OBP) in his first 19 games. La Stella is a contact hitter, a strange phenomenon on this team -- only seven strikeouts in his first 70 ABs. That's a good sign. And Upton, as bad as he's been, isn't as inadequate at the plate this year (.213) as he was in 2013 when he hit .184. A 29-percentage-point improvement!!! Woo-hoo!!! (Weak argument? Sure, but isn't this a good place to mention that with Uggla and Upton as regulars last year, Atlanta won the NL East by 10 games? Smoke and mirrors, baby.) It's getting better, and it's going to keep getting better. Everything's comin' up rose-colored.
And is the offense really that bad? It surely ain't a beauty, but it pretties up a little next to some of the Nats' gnarly numbers. You could look it up. Check out how close Atlanta and Washington are in team batting average, slugging percentage and OPS in our current sortable NL statistics. Negligible differences. And by the way, as much as you hear about how often the Braves strike out, they still don't see strike three as frequently as the Marlins, the other NL East contender. (Why isn't this a three-way Hot Button?)
Two -- or is it three? -- other quick things (I'm running out of room) about why the Braves will prevail: Craig Kimbrel ('nuff said) and those Simmons kids. Andrelton, you know about. Shae, keep an eye on. Since his May 30 call-up, he has given up one lonely earned run (1.08) in 12 relief appearances.
The Nats, meanwhile, haven't figured this winning thing out yet. And they really haven't figured it out against Atlanta. They're 7-18 against the Braves since the start of 2013; 1-5 so far this season.
Stay afraid, Washington.